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Rap it in a Grid

May 25, 2011 By Nishant Kothary

I am currently reading Decoded by Jay-Z. This passage stopped me dead in my tracks last night (it’s a little long, but worth it):

It’s been said that the thing that makes rap special, that makes it different both from pop music and from written poetry, is that it’s built around two kinds of rhythm. The first kind of rhythm is the meter. In poetry, the meter is abstract, but in rap, the meter is something you literally hear: it’s the beat. The beat in a song never stops, it never varies. No matter what other sounds are on the track, even if it’s a Timbaland production with all kinds of offbeat fills and electronics, a rap song is usually built bar by bar, four-beat measure by four-beat measure. It’s like time itself, ticking off relentlessly in a rhythm that never varies and never stops.

When you think about it like that, you realize the beat is everywhere, you just have to tap into it. You can bang it out on a project wall or an 808 drum machine or just use your hands. You can beatbox it with your mouth. But the beat is only one half of a rap song’s rhythm. The other is the flow. When a rapper jumps on a beat, he adds his own rhythm. Sometimes you stay in the pocket of the beat and just let the rhythm land on the square so that the beat and flow become one. But sometimes the flow chops up the beat, breaks the beat into smaller units, forces in multiple syllables and repeated sounds and internal rhythms, or hangs a drunken leg over the last bap and keeps going, sneaks out of that bitch. The flow isn’t like time, it’s like life. It’s like a heartbeat or the way you breathe, it can jump, speed up, slowdown, stop, or pound right through like a machine.

The first thing that came to mind: grids.

We started talking about grids on the Web in 2004. Folks like Khoi Vinh and Mark Boulton spurred the conversation, and grids soon became all the rage. And we’re still completely enamored with them.

Jay-Z's Decoded

To most designers (including me), grids are inevitable. They’re the “Duh!” of design. In a world where caffeinated rituals are performed in hopes of genius solutions, grids provide security. They use math and divinations of natural phenomena, like the golden ratio, to provide an ordered approach to solving problems.

Simply put: grids offer what’s most elusive in design: predictability.

But when it comes to life—the place where design solutions prove their worth—predictability is a double-edged sword. And this couldn’t be truer on the Web. Users want a predictable experience. When something is a link, users want to know it without having to think about it. A link should behave like other links.

But users demand that these expected experiences simultaneously be delightful. For most people, this idea is somewhere on a tangent, living on the opposite end of where non-spontaneous Mr. Predictable does.

The reality is, a grid makes the act of solving design problems seem predictable, but says nothing for supplying the appropriate design solution.

The grid is akin to the beat. But it’s hardly ever the flow, which is the true design solution. We still don’t have a recipe for predictably nailing the true design solution, but I have a theory about this.

But, I digress. The real point is: like the beat, the grid is simply a means to an end.

Jay-Z says it best:

If the beat is time, flow is what we do with that time, how we live through it. The beat is everywhere, but every life has to find its own flow.



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14 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Pete Clark said on May 30, 2011

I love this! Being someone who has to occasionally explain the importance of grids (to people who would rather be listening to hiphop than me I suspect) I am often in need of a convincing argument. I think I now have it. Thank you.

Ivana Setiawan said on May 30, 2011

Good post Nishant, I really enjoyed reading it.
Some designers think that grid isn't necessary & I do not understand that. To me, grid is like bones in the human body - it is crucial.

PS: I love Jay-Z as well :p he's super awesome!

Santi said on May 30, 2011

One of the best books I've read.

Matt said on May 30, 2011

Really nice job on this article. Gonna have to go grab that book now, too!

Spencer said on Jun 23, 2011

This has been the best analogy in web that I've seen yet.

Alan said on Jun 23, 2011

Amen. Great analogy.

Emcee said on Jun 25, 2011

Here is a clinic on flow, feat. Eminem, Black Thought, and Mos Def.

ben said on Jul 19, 2011

There is always a flip side to everything. Grid may provide you security, but what kind of security? Is it like having the support of crutches so that you do not tumble and fall?

If you think about nature, it is grid-less, that is what makes it natural. Even our human body is not perfect. Our teeth is not a perfect row of sticks; one of our feet is bigger, the ear sticks out; the face is lopsided...etc. What does this all mean? It means that as far as nature is concerned, nature does not follow a particular grid systems in its developmental process. There are grid like structures in nature, but there are very few.

A rap is brought as an example of a kind of a grid system, but rap is only one flavor of style. You take classical music, for example, and you quickly discover that beat and rhytm in classics is invisible at times, and is often altered by conductor depending on the picture being portrayed in a particular movement. Grid may work perfectly in rap, but imperfectly in classical music.

If one must follow the grid, he should, but I found that grid is not always necessary. Sometimes aligning objects by eye is beautiful (sometimes, not always).

It all depends on the school of thought you are coming from. Design is way too subjective and can be looked at from all kinds of directions.

Elvia Phanthauong said on Jul 22, 2011

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Nishant Kothary said on Jul 28, 2011

Ben — *nodding profusely*

Back to the Future of Wireframes — Rainypixels said on Aug 3, 2011

[...] downstream in a much better way. Secondly, due to the nature of the beast, it introduces a level of delightful unpredictability for our users. Remember, these are exactly the kinds of results we were hoping to [...]

Primary phsycian True Care Clinic said on Dec 12, 2011

It's great information

Painting Amy said on Mar 15, 2012

Nice analogy, I also like what Ivana said - grid is like bones in the human body.

Without grid things tend to end up in chaos.

Matt said on Jun 6, 2012

Nice way to touch on the truth behind good digital product design.